Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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Heidegger, Martin

core definition

Heidegger was influential in the development of hermeneutic methodology.

explanatory context

Heidegger regarded understanding as a mode of Being that underlies and guides all methodic scientific investigations. In this sense Heidegger universalised hermeneutic philosophy. [Husserl had adopted a similar view in his idea of the pre-scientific 'life world'.]


Heidegger argued that fundamental hermeneutic understanding, involving the 'becoming aware of the meaning of beings'. This understanding is pre-methodic. This is universal and takes the form of a dialectical relationship between question and answer via language as in a dialogue (where both parties changed position, knowledge etc. as a result of linguistic expression). Dialogue takes place in a context, so too does that relationship of researcher and text.


Heidegger sought a method that would disclose life in terms of itself. (In this he reflected Dilthey and Husserl, although unlike Husserl, but like Dilthey, he sought to encompass the historicality of life).


Heidegger makes it clear in the first pages of Being and Time, that the question of Being needs to be restated but that certain presuppositions 'constantly foster the belief that an inquiry into Being is unnecessary'.


There are three such presuppositions:

(a) Being is the most universal concept but for Heidegger 'it is the darkest of all';

(b) the concept of Being is indefinable—but this idea does not eliminate the question of its meaning;

(c) it is held that Being is self evident. But living in an understanding of Being with the meaning of Being veiled in darkness 'proves that it is necessary in principle to raise this question again'.


What method shall be used? Heidegger argues that if the object is Being then the method of investigation is that of ontology. But the method of ontology is 'phenomenology—to the things themselves'. The aim of phenomenological investigation is to 'bring forward the entities themselves if it is our aim that Being should be laid bare' (Heidegger, 1962, p. 61). 'With regard to its subject matter, phenomenology is the science of the Being of entities—ontology. Our investigation will show that the meaning of phenomenological description as a method lies in interpretation'.


'The phenomenology of Dasein is a hermeneutic in the primordial signification of this word, where it signifies this business of interpreting..this hermeneutic also becomes a 'hermeneutic' in the sense of working out the conditions on which the possibility of any ontological investigation depends'


In effect, Heidegger claims that 'hermeneutic' uncovers Dasein which, in turn, reveals Being—the phenomenological truth—the disclosure of Being.


What is Heidegger's method? Heidegger views understanding as the power to grasp one's own possibilities for being, within the context of the lifeworld in which one exists. The first task, therefore, is to uncover the structure of human existence.


This—called Dasein by Heidegger—represents the possibilities of Being, and therefore of existence. The 'understanding' and 'interpretation' of the possibilities of existence is carried out by a hermeneutic. This is encapsulated in Heidegger's view of the hermeneutic circle.


Heidegger writes of the hermeneutic circle as follows:

'If the basic conditions which make interpretation possible are to be fulfilled, this must (rather) be done by (not failing) to recognise beforehand the essential conditions under which it can be performed. What is decisive is not to get out of the circle but to get into it in the right way. This circle of understanding is not an orbit in which any random kind of knowledge may move; it is the expressiuon of the existential pre-structure of Dasein itself. It is not to be reduced to the level of a vicious circle, or even of a circle which is merely tolerated. In the circle is hidden a positive possibility of the most primordial kind of knowing. To be sure, we genuinely take hold of this possibility only when, in our interpretation, we have understood that our first, last and constant task is never to allow our forehaving, forsight and foreconception to be presented to us by fancies and popular conceptions, but rather to make the scientific theories secure by working out the fore structure in terms of the things themselves.' (Heidegger, 1962, p. 195)

Heidegger, in developing his ontological rather than epistemological approach to hermeneutics clearly sees the hermeneutic circle as a philosophical rather than methodological device.


What does the hermenutic reveal? Human beings have the power to be. Existence is the choice of the possibilities open to them and Dasein is realised in the choices made. The most fundamental of those choices is authenticity—this is the realisation that death is the outcome of all possibilities. As Heidegger puts it

'And because Dasein is in each case essentially its own possibility. it can, in its very Being, 'choose' itself and win itself...But only in so far as it is essentially something which can be authentic—that is, something of its own (mineness)—can it have lost itself and not yet won itself' (Heidegger, 1962, p. 68).

The choices available to a human being never conclude. They are carried out within the structure of being-in-the-world. Being-in-the-world is the being of a self in its inseparable relations with a not-self. (Not-self is the world of objects or things). This manner of existence is not accidental: it is a necessity of thought. The world of objects is a world of things which have a specific use to me-tools or existents which have a being-ready-to-hand. The world is made intelligble as projects through the relationship between being-in-the-world, the not-self (world of objects) and being-ready-to-hand. Being-in-the-world and being-ready-to-hand are the possibilities represented by Dasein. Dasein is to be distinguished from the modes of Being. The Being of Dasein itself, when understood ontologically, is care. Being-in-the-world is therefore care. All the possibilities of Dasein will be reflected as care.


Living in the world is the projection of Dasein. The various possibilities are tentative projects and they are interpretations. My understanding of the nature of existence (that is, the meaning it has for me) is elaborated in the possibilities of action embodied in Dasein. However, the world as possibility is limited by the nature of things. The 'thing-world' is a world of finite existence already elaborated and organised into routine possibilities by the realisation (projects) of others. There is therefore the possibility of authentic choice (the achievement of projects which are my own) or inauthentic choice-the achievement of projects which move in the ruts and routes (the traces) of the organised world. Authentic or inauthentic projects can be interpreted and understood but authentic projects are revealed through dread.


Again, as Heidegger puts it, 'different possibilities of Being emerge in fearing..If something threatening breaks in suddenly upon concernful Being-in-the-world, fear becomes alarm...All modifications of fear, as possibilities of having a state-of-mind, point to the fact that Being-in-the-world is 'fearful'. But if that which threatens has the character of something unfamiliar, of not belonging to the world ready-to-hand then fear becomes dread. Dread is one of the possibilities of Dasein'.


Dasein is uncovered through a nameless emotion which points directly to my situation and to my choice and to my living in the world. Under this impetus I seek Dasein as Being-in-the-world. I can articulate Dasein either through an understanding of the ways in which the world of things is used (Verstehen) or through language. In language, the truth is uncovered and the nature of authenticity is found. But whilst Dasein is Being-in-the-world (and care) the end of Being-in-the-world is death. The authentic project of life ends in death. I have to recognise the contingency and the annihilation of all possibilities in death. To accept this is to live authenmtically; to deny it is to live inauthentically.


Heidegger, in attacking historism, maintains that only a person who stands in history can hope to understand history. Historism suppresses the role of the interpreter. Historical thinking must reflect on its own historicity. There are no neutral points from which an assault on history may be made.

analytical review

Wheeler (2011) wrote:

Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) was a German philosopher whose work is perhaps most readily associated with phenomenology and existentialism, although his thinking should be identified as part of such philosophical movements only with extreme care and qualification. His ideas have exerted a seminal influence on the development of contemporary European philosophy. They have also had an impact far beyond philosophy, for example in architectural theory..., literary criticism..., theology..., psychotherapy... and cognitive science....


Wheeler (2011) also outlines Heidegger's connection with Nazism:

In 1933 Heidegger joined the Nazi Party and was elected Rector of Freiburg University, where, depending on whose account one believes, he either enthusiastically implemented the Nazi policy of bringing university education into line with Hitler's nauseating political programme (Pattison 2000) or he allowed that policy to be officially implemented while conducting a partially underground campaign of resistance to some of its details, especially its anti-Semitism (see Heidegger's own account in Only a God can Save Us). During the short period of his rectorship—he resigned in 1934—Heidegger gave a number of public speeches (including his inaugural rectoral address; see below) in which Nazi images plus occasional declarations of support for Hitler are integrated with the philosophical language of Being and Time. After 1934 Heidegger became increasingly distanced from Nazi politics. Although he didn't leave the Nazi party, he did attract some unwelcome attention from its enthusiasts. After the war, however, a university denazification committee at Freiburg investigated Heidegger and banned him from teaching, a right which he did not get back until 1949. One year later he was made professor Emeritus. Against this background of contrary information, one will search in vain through Heidegger's later writings for the sort of total and unambiguous repudiation of National Socialism that one might hope to find. The philosophical character of Heidegger's involvement with Nazism is discussed later in this article....


Ramberg and Gjesdal (2005) explained Heidegger's importance to the development of hermeneutics:

Informed by his reading of Schleiermacher, Droysen, and Dilthey, Martin Heidegger's Sein und Zeit (1927) completely transformed the discipline of hermeneutics. In Heidegger's view, hermeneutics is not a matter of understanding linguistic communication. Nor is it about providing a methodological basis for the human sciences. As far as Heidegger is concerned, hermeneutics is ontology; it is about the most fundamental conditions of man's being in the world. Yet Heidegger's turn to ontology is not completely separated from earlier hermeneutic philosophies. Just as Vico had started out with a critique of the Cartesian notion of certainty, so Heidegger sets out to overthrow what he takes to be the Cartesian trajectory of modern philosophical reason.

associated issues


related areas

See also





Heidegger, M., 1962, Being and Time. Oxford, Blackwell. [1927, Sein and Zeit]

Ramberg, B. and Gjesdal, K., 2005, 'Hermeneutics' first published 9 November 2005 in Zalta, E.N. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition), available at, accessed 4 March 2013. This entry has been replaced by a new entry on 22 June 2016 authored by C. Mantzavinos.

Wheeler, M., 2011, 'Martin Heidegger', The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), first published 12 October 2011, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), available at, accessed 23 January 2013, still available 22 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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